Sam Westin stared out her back window at the endless cold rain drizzling through the shaggy limbs of the Douglas firs. According to the calendar, the shortest day of the year had passed a week ago, but she couldn’t discern any increase in daylight. Her tiny home office always felt like a dark, damp cave in December. And somehow, although she always swore not to let it happen, the holiday season had ambushed her again with its constant reminders of what she was missing. Family. Company parties. Year-end bonus pay. She envied her housemate Blake, who had happily blown his bonus on Christmas presents for his thirteen-year-old daughter and a rental tux for the fancy New Year’s party he was attending at his company.
Most of the time Sam was content to be independent and self-employed. December was just a quiet boring period when she could do extra work. But this year, the economic recession had tag-teamed with her seasonal frustrations to make the days even more dismal. She had very little work lined up; and even less company to brighten the days. A week ago, on Christmas Eve, her FBI lover Chase had stayed overnight. Now he was off doing extended training in an undisclosed location. She wasn’t sure they had parted on the best of terms, and she wouldn’t have a chance to set things right until their next rendezvous in late February. So, here she was again on New Year’s Eve without a man to kiss at midnight.
Sam turned back to her computer. On the screen was the terrible novel she was editing for her mechanic, Ralph, in exchange for replacing the brake pads on her Civic. It was a truly awful Army story, with too many bullets and too little plot. Ralph had hinted that he wanted to self-publish it. She had a feeling that his story was part memoir, so she needed to tread carefully. What the hell was she going to tell him? Why had she put herself in this position?
The answer was desperation. She had only three short articles on her work calendar for January. She’d volunteered to write articles for local nonprofits in the hope that making new contacts would lead to future pay, but volunteer work didn’t pay the bills, which were rapidly stacking up. Laid-off employees got unemployment compensation; the out-of-work self-employed weren’t even counted.
When her land line rang, she answered without looking at the caller ID. Any interruption was welcome at this point. “Westin.”
“This is Tad Wyatt calling from Key Corporation.”
Key Corporation? That was unexpected. A decade ago she had worked briefly for Key on an encyclopedia project that got axed after only a few months. The company hadn’t called her since. She had never heard of Tad Wyatt.
“Summer,” he began, revealing how little he knew about her by using her given name instead of her nickname. “We admired that speech you did for The Edge last year. That was amazing.”
“It wasn’t for them, they just sponsored me at the wildlife conference.” Was that damn video of her still playing on YouTube?
“Whatever,” Wyatt said. “That cougar thing you did before that was sweet, too. We really respect your work. We’d like you to join our expedition to the Galápagos Islands.”
The rain-soaked forest view outside her window was instantly replaced by a vision of a tropical beach. White sand. Turquoise water. Palm trees. Dolphins. The farthest south she had ever been was Puerto Vallarta. This guy wanted her to go to Ecuador? She fought to keep her voice calm and professional. “That sounds intriguing.”
In recent years, she’d accidentally developed a reputation for death-defying stunts. No way was she adding serving as shark bait or bungee jumping into volcanoes to her list of credits. “What sort of project is this?”
Her cat Simon scratched on the doormat in front of the patio door. Holding the phone to her ear, she walked over and slid open the door. Simon stared at the pouring rain and twitched his tail, no doubt hoping for something better.
“You may know that recently, Key received some unjustified negative publicity about our charitable donations.”
“I read about that.” Key raked in billions in profits, but their only donations had been computers loaded with their own products, which served to extend Key’s software domination around the globe. That history made the company CEO, Scott F. Key, seem especially gluttonous now that it had become trendy for the superrich to publicize their selfless gifts to charities.
“We want to show the world where our hearts really are, so we’re supporting various worthy causes and featuring their projects on Out There.”
Sam knew that Out There was Key’s glitzy site featuring high-drama stories and peppered with links to other sites selling products that also profited Key in some way. It was about time Out There featured worthwhile content.
“Sounds like a good plan,” she said, nudging Simon’s backside with her foot. The cat dug his claws into the doormat. She closed the door, barely missing his whiskers. He glared, his green eyes full of resentment. Sam scooped him up and lifted him to the windowsill, where he had a good view of the chickadees gobbling seeds from the birdfeeder. He twitched his tail and made chirping noises, sounding like a bird himself.
“We’ve got health projects in India and cooperative farming projects in Africa,” Wyatt told her. “In the Galápagos, we’re teaming up with the Natural Planet Foundation.”
Yes! She pumped a fist in the air. The Natural Planet Foundation was not a showboat group looking to grab headlines. The organization conducted research studies on the health of ecosystems around the world. She often used their data in her environmental articles. “I’d be proud to work with NPF.”
“I should explain that half our team in the Galápagos will work with a Ph.D. biologist from NPF to do a marine survey.”
Even better. She was tired of being a solo act; human partners were a definite plus. Her mind conjured up a gray-bearded Ph.D. type. Bifocals. In her imagination, he had a kind smile. She’d won the Lotto! “How many people will be on the Galápagos team?”
“The marine biologist will work for NPF. You’ll be Out There’s intrepid reporter in the field.”
“What? I will be the whole team?” Maybe it wasn’t a Lotto win after all. Why couldn’t she ever land reasonable jobs?
“The NPF biologist will be there, and Out There’s readers will think we have two reporters in the islands. We’re doing this with all our reporters now. We want you to write posts each day under two different names.”
She should have known there’d be some sort of crazy catch to such a dream assignment. “Two posts every day?”
“Short posts—five hundred to seven hundred words each. With pictures or video. We’ll supply you with state-of-the-art camera equipment, so it’ll be easy to deliver the visuals. You excel at producing short, exciting articles, as we both know.”
Wyatt was right. She did know how to do precisely what he described. She’d done it plenty of times. He was promising a trip to Darwin’s enchanted islands, land of giant tortoises and flightless cormorants. Marine iguanas. Penguins!
Remember the bills, her conscience nagged. “The pay?” she asked.
“A thousand dollars a day, plus expenses. The expedition begins February twelfth.”
She moved back to her desk to grab her Nature Conservancy calendar. The February page featured a photo of a frozen waterfall. February twenty-second through the end of the month had a big red line through it under the words Ski Trip with Chase. She couldn’t miss that. No matter what, they’d pledged to meet up then. “I have another assignment that begins February twenty-second. Will that work?”
“Of course,” he said. “We’re allotting a week for the project and travel time. It’ll be like a vacation.”
Sam didn’t have to weigh the proposition long. On the minus side: schlepping around camera and computer equipment, meeting daily deadlines with punchy stories. On the plus side: the tropics, a like-minded teammate, exotic animals, and more money than she’d earned in the past three months. She could almost feel the sun on her skin now.
“So, a post every day about the islands by Wilderness Westin, expert hiker and kayaker,” Wyatt prompted.
“No problem.” The pseudonym still felt silly, but she’d used it off and on for a couple of years now. She was an experienced hiker and kayaker.
“And another by a new character that we’ll create for the underwater adventures. You are a diver, right?”
“Ah.” It was all she could get out. She quickly paged backward though the calendar, through the frost-covered ferns of January to the current date, December 31. A frozen waterfall suspended from a snow-topped cliff.
Almost six weeks before the expedition. She was a good swimmer. She was an excellent photographer. She was used to working under difficult conditions.
“Summer? You still there? I asked if you’re a certified diver.”
How hard could it be to do her job underwater?
“Of course,” she lied.
By the time Sam finally stepped into the brilliant sunshine of the Galápagos Islands, she felt like she’d toured the entire Western Hemisphere in one day. She’d driven to Seattle in the wee hours of the morning, boarded a plane for Houston, then another for Guayaquil, and then another for Puerto Ayora. She’d barely had time to introduce herself over dinner to Dr. Daniel Kazaki before she’d fallen asleep. Now, only sixteen hours after touching down, she was preparing to jump into the Pacific Ocean with him.
She had looked forward to sun, but she wasn’t quite prepared for the contrast between the Pacific Northwest and the equator. Daylight in the Galápagos was blinding, even from behind the polarized screen of her sunglasses. She blinked at the surroundings, feeling like a mole that had been suddenly unearthed. She hoped she wouldn’t feel similarly exposed in the water. She’d passed her dive certification course with flying colors and done well in the underwater photography class. But today was the real test.
Her first posts at Out There were due tomorrow. She had this one day to pass herself off as an underwater pro. Or at least not reveal herself as an inept pretender. Last night at dinner, when she told Dan that all her dives had been in the Pacific Northwest, he said ominously, “Good, then you’ll have no problem with the currents here.”
She studied the water around their boat. Unlike the Pacific Northwest, there were no fields of bull kelp here to indicate the water’s flow. “Have you explored this location before?” she asked Dan.
“Several times.” Clad in a wetsuit unzipped to the navel, neoprene sleeves tied around his waist, he leaned against the side of the cabin cruiser. He nibbled the end of a pen, his brow wrinkled in concentration as he studied the clipboard he held. “It’s easy; great for gear checkout.”
Easy. Halleluiah! She picked up her digital camera and zoomed in on him. While he did have a kind smile and a few shallow wrinkles around his almond-shaped hazel eyes, Dr. Daniel Kazaki was in no way the gray-bearded academic she’d imagined. In fact, he was a few years younger than she was, and his muscles would have been the envy of many a high school gym class. Sam prayed she’d be able to keep up with him.
She pressed the shutter button. Dan looked up. He pulled the pen from his mouth and frowned at the tooth marks that dented the plastic. “Bad habit. You’re not putting that on the front page?”
“It’s a blog. It’s up to the editors where the photos go. I’m just a peon.”
“Impossible. I refuse to have a peon for a partner.” He grinned. “Ready to go in?”
“Almost.” She checked her regulator and buoyancy control device vest—BCD for short—for the tenth time, twisted the valves on her main cylinder and her emergency pony tank to be sure they were fully open, studied the readout on her dive computer, breathed from her safe-second mouthpiece again to assure herself that she could use it in the event her primary mouthpiece failed. It was like preparing for a space walk.
She straightened and studied the surroundings, trying to postpone the dive a few minutes longer. A short distance to the east, a spear of rock broke the mirror glare of the Pacific. To the north and west lay Santa Cruz Island and the town of Puerto Ayora, where they had slept last night.
“Zip up,” Dan told her, shrugging into the sleeves of his wetsuit.
Key Corporation had supplied her with a sleek black wetsuit that featured neon green and yellow insets and get out there in fluorescent yellow script across her breasts. It made her look quite the dive diva, even if she did say so herself. It was a custom order, designed to hug her muscular five-foot-two-inch frame. For a woman resigned to spending her life rolling up cuffs, the perfect fit was a rare luxury.
The air temperature had to be over ninety degrees Fahrenheit and she was not eager to enclose herself in thick neoprene. “Do we really need these wetsuits?”
“You’ll see.” Reaching behind his back, Dan pulled up the cord attached to his zipper, stretching his wetsuit tight across his upper torso. Centered in the middle of his chest was a rectangle of gray duct tape, peeling at the edges. Curious. The rest of his gear looked to be in excellent shape.
Dan tugged up his hood, buckled on his fins, and then reached for his tank. As he hefted the strap of his BCD over his right shoulder, she snapped another photo. “Marine biologist at work,” she named it aloud.
“Save the film for the sharks.”
“There’s no film.” She snapped the camera into its waterproof housing and mounted the lights she would need below the surface. Then she caught up with the end of his sentence. “Sharks?”
“If we’re lucky, we’ll see a nice big hammerhead.”
Nice big hammerhead? Perched on the starboard side next to Dan, Sam reluctantly harnessed herself into her equipment and tugged on her fins. She pushed her regulator into her mouth, took a quick suck of metallic-tasting air.
Dan tethered a small handheld computer to his left wrist with a black cord, and then patted himself down, checking equipment. “Time to blast off.” He looked toward the boat cabin. “Ricardo?”
A dark-skinned man in khaki shorts and green shirt emerged. A red can of cola sweated between his callused fingers, and a pair of sunglasses perched on top of his head.
“We’re going in now.”
Ricardo’s gaze focused on the patch on Dan’s wetsuit. “You have a rip? I have glue; I can fix.” He stepped forward and pulled at a loose corner, exposing part of a circular NPF logo beneath the tape.
“It’s no big deal.” Dan quickly smoothed the tape back down.
“N-P-F?” Ricardo pronounced it with Spanish letters, Ennay-Pay-Effay.
Dan shrugged. “They gave me the wetsuit. I’m a university professor.”
Ricardo frowned. “Pero . . . but NPF—”
“Could you hand Sam her camera?” Dan interrupted. “We should be down less than an hour. No need to move the boat; we’ll circle and come back here.”
Ricardo nodded. Then he pulled his sunglasses over his eyes, cloaking his gaze. Sam recognized the mirrored lenses as a brand that gang members were killing each other for in U.S. cities—PCBs. PCB was a hip designer, not the toxic compound found in EPA cleanup sites, but the idea of poisons apparently also appealed to the gangsta crowd. The glasses seemed out of place here.
It was too risky to jump into the water holding the expensive camera, and on this small boat, there was no platform to gently step off from. Sam folded the attached lights against the camera and handed it to Ricardo.
“Let’s go.” Dan shoved his mouthpiece into place, pulled down his mask, and backflipped headfirst into the water.
After a last longing look at the sunny surroundings, Sam stretched her mask strap over her French braid, then held her face mask and regulator with one hand and followed Dan’s lead. The jade green water closed above her. She rolled to the surface to take the camera from Ricardo’s outstretched hands, then exhaled and sank into the foreign world.
A school of silver fingerlings, scattered by her splashdown, regrouped in a swirl around her. Sunlight stabbed the water in bright beams that reflected from the pearlescent scales of the tiny fish. Beautiful.
She took a breath. The canned air didn’t taste bad, although it was dry as the desert. It was the sound of her breath that rattled her nerves, amplifying the intake and outflow of her own lungs like a ventilator. A vision from her childhood welled up in her imagination. Tubes and wires and pump, breathing for a woman who was more machine than mother. Sam willed the dreaded hospital memory away. She was not her mother, nor the nine-year-old girl watching her die. She was thirty-seven now, a strong woman on an adventure.
First rule of scuba: breathe slowly and continuously. She tried to relax and do exactly that. The glittering surface receded as she descended, pinching her nose and puffing air into her sinuses to equalize pressure in her ears. Her computer readout marked fifty feet below the surface. So far, so good. She’d been down to seventy on her training dives. Rolling to a horizontal position, she spotted Dan twenty feet below her, gliding over the coral-encrusted seafloor. She sank down to join him, remembering at the last second to add air to her BCD to prevent a crash landing.
Dan plucked a tube-shaped creature from the rock and held it out. She nodded to show she recognized the sea cucumber, one of the overfished organisms NPF was especially interested in counting.
Dan gently repositioned the animal on the rock. Another of the orange-and-white species crawled a short distance away, side by side with a pale yellow one. She watched Dan tap the count into his handheld computer.
A school of bullet-shaped silver fish, each at least a foot long, swam just ahead of them. Big-eye jacks? She’d have to look them up later in her Galápagos wildlife encyclopedia CD. Dan held up ten fingers three times, then two fingers on his left hand.
Crap. She forgot she was supposed to be helping. Taking a quick glance at the gray blurs disappearing into the blue, she nodded, agreeing with the count. The look in Dan’s eyes told her that he knew she was faking.
He pointed into the murk. Sighting along his finger, Sam spotted a dark shadow headed their direction. No. She wasn’t ready for a shark. As the creature approached, she concentrated on breathing slowly.
The shadow transformed into a spherical beast with wings. A turtle, flying underwater. Whoa. The sight was amazing. Dan returned to his examination of the ocean floor—he’d probably seen hundreds of sea turtles. Sam swam closer to the marine reptile. Its dark eyes were huge and soft, almost spaniel-like. Black spots freckled its pale green beak and neck. The turtle ignored her, gliding past with powerful thrusts of its long flippers. She took a photo with the turtle in the foreground and Dan hovering over a cluster of starfish in the background.
She finned back to Dan, who obligingly plucked a mottled red-and-white lobster from among the starfish and held it out toward the camera. As she centered his figure in the frame, his head jerked and a cloud of bubbles burst from his regulator. Alarmed, she curled the fingers of her right hand into an “okay?” sign. Another burst of air bubbled from his regulator, then he quickly jabbed a finger at his throat, and returned the okay sign. Just coughing.
It was understandable. The compressed air was dry; her own throat felt tight and scratchy. As she reframed man and lobster in the viewfinder, she noticed a torpedo shape in the blue gloom beyond him. Uh-oh. She took a breath and pressed the shutter button, exhaled, and then pointed.
After a quick glance, Dan thrust his fingers into a vertical fin on top of his neoprene hood. Scuba sign language for shark. There was no mistaking the dorsal fin on its back, the flattened profile. It was indeed a shark. Sam hovered uncertainly in place. What was a diver supposed to do to look avoid looking like food?
Dan held his hands out, two feet apart. A little shark? As it swam closer, she saw that he was correct. It was bigger than two feet, but probably no longer than three. Its sleek hide was an intricate mosaic of shaded patches. A leopard shark. Harmless, gorgeous, and best of all, alone. As the shark swam upward, she followed with the camera, capturing a shot of the shark suspended beneath the triangular shape of their boat. Even as she snapped the photo, Sam knew she shouldn’t have glanced up. She had a perfect view of the bubbles streaming upward from both regulators. There was fifty feet of water between her and normal air.
Her breathing sounded mechanical and forced now. Calm down, she told herself. In—hiss. Out—bubble, bubble, bubble. You signed up for this.
She looked down. Below, Dan stared at her and coughed again. The display on her computer was flashing, the technological equivalent of a stern teacher shaking a warning finger. She’d been down with Dan, up after the turtle, down with Dan again, and then up after the shark. Yo-yoing. A definite no-no. Letting air out of her buoyancy vest, she slowly sank again, holding out her arms in an underwater shrug, then pointing to her camera, hoping he’d read that as being an overly enthusiastic photographer. If her fingers trembled, maybe he’d attribute it to the water’s chill. He had definitely been right about the wetsuit. Her computer registered seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit, which was surprisingly cold when suspended in liquid for thirty minutes.
With another burst of bubbles, Dan turned away, circling over the algae-mottled seabed, searching for more marine life. She followed, gliding a yard above the rough black lava, delighting in the marvels of a red-and-white cushion star and a psychedelic display of orange cup coral.
Suddenly the rock floor beneath her fell away, and she found herself suspended above a deep chasm. Dan was below her, his form made hazy by a shoal of tiny blue fish between them. His bubbles streamed up between the darting shapes. One air globule hit her mask squarely in front of her right eye, and clung there like a droplet of mercury until she turned her head and it rolled away to continue its journey to the surface.
She was suspended in blue-green space. It felt marvelous and frightening and astounding, all at the same time. Her air gauge showed almost 1000 PSI left; she was breathing well, not too fast. She was gliding through the liquid womb of Mother Earth with fish and reptiles and—what was the proper classification for sea cucumbers, anyway? Echinoderms? Her wildlife biology studies had focused on mammals; she needed to brush up on the cold-blooded classifications.
She came face to face with an exquisite purple lace fan. On land, she would have said it was part of the fern family. Down here, coral? She wasn’t sure. According to her books, corals came in many shapes, sizes, and colors. So did sponges. To make identification even more confusing, other creatures mimicked plants. Bryozoans? She didn’t yet know which name applied to which creature. Or even if it was one creature she was staring at. Some marine organisms were actually groups of animals. Mind-blowing.
They’d been down for nearly forty minutes. Hadn’t Dan told the boat pilot they would circle? They hadn’t. Unless her underwater navigation skills were seriously flawed, they hadn’t traveled very far at all. Shouldn’t they be swimming more, counting more? Beneath her, Dan listed slightly to starboard. His computer dangled on its wrist cord in the slight current. He floated facedown, barely moving. Sam joined him to see what was so mesmerizing. Unable to detect much of interest within his range of vision, she tapped him on the shoulder. When he didn’t react, she tugged at his arm.
His body rolled toward her like a mannequin. Behind the face mask, his eyes were dull, his eyelids at half-mast. She flashed the “okay?” question at him.
Dan floated listlessly, unresponsive.
~ END OF SAMPLE ~